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Republicans seek to roll back discretion in immigration cases

June 24, 2011|By Brian Bennett, Washington Bureau
(Drew Angerer, File/AP )

House Republicans are targeting an Obama administration effort to give immigration officials more leeway when it comes to deciding who to deport from the U.S.

Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, plans to introduce legislation next month that would suspend the Obama administration's ability to exercise executive discretion in immigration cases.

Smith's bill, called the HALT Act, would strip the administration's power to defer deportation of immigration violators, grant work authorization or grant temporary protected status to immigrants who are fleeing a disaster.

The bill is aimed only at the Obama administration: In the proposed legislation, the executive powers would be restored at the end of this presidential term.

"Because of the Obama administration's record, it cannot be trusted with these powers," said Smith in a letter dated June 23 encouraging other House members to sponsor the bill with him.

The bill has little chance of becoming law. Even if the bill passed the House, it probably would not pass the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Smith's move comes a week after the director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement instructed immigration officials to take into account a number of factors when deciding whether to continue deportation proceedings against an individual, such as a person's pursuit of education and whether the person came to the U.S. as a young child and has family relationships in the U.S.

The policy changes by the administration came in response to concerns that a federal information-sharing program called Secure Communities was unintentionally ensnaring illegal immigrants who are minor offenders, victims of domestic abuse and other crimes, witnesses to crimes and people who were arrested but not convicted of offenses.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) has pushed for changes to the Secure Communities program and described the new policy guidelines as a "step forward.”

Still, the changes didn't address concerns by local sheriffs that illegal immigrants will be less likely to report crimes if local fingerprint checks are linked with the immigration database, Lofgren said in an interview on Friday.

Also, Lofgren is concerned that immigration agents on the ground may not follow the new instructions.

Chris Crane, president of the National ICE Council union that represents about 7,000 ICE employees, called the new directives a "law enforcement nightmare” that make it difficult for ICE agents to know who can and cannot be arrested.

Some of the new factors in the June 17 memo from ICE Director John Morton corresponded with circumstances that would make someone eligible for the DREAM Act, a proposed law that has yet to get through Congress but would create a path to citizenship for young people in the country illegally who go to college or serve in the military.

"The Obama administration cannot continue to pick and choose which laws it will enforce,” said Smith in a statement Friday. Smith plans to introduce the HALT Act sometime next month.

The DREAM Act, which is under consideration in the Senate, will be the subject of a Senate hearing Tuesday.

Smith plans to introduce the HALT Act sometime next month. The HALT Act stands for "Hinder the Administration's Legalization Temptation" Act.

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